Cleveland’s regular season woes followed them into the playoffs — they were a terrible defensive team all season (29th in the league), so when they didn’t adjust well to slowing Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner in Game 1, it was to be expected.
However, the Cavaliers had a new problem that cost them Game 1: Their offense was terrible, scoring just 0.84 points per possession. LeBron James had a triple-double but his performance still felt just okay. Jeff Green was a disaster. So was the Cavaliers three-point shooting overall. Kevin Love was a non-factor. The Cavs didn’t get good looks and missed the ones they did get.
Indiana is up 1-0 heading into Game 2 Wednesday, so what do the Cavaliers have to do now? Here are three things to watch.
1) LeBron James has to set the tone early by scoring. To open Game 1, the Indiana Pacers put Bojan Bogdanovic on LeBron — that should have been an open invitation to go into attack mode. Bogdanovic is a better defender than you may think, but he’s nowhere near ready to handle aggressive and attacking LeBron.
Except he didn’t have to. LeBron spent the first quarter trying to set up teammates and getting everyone involved, and as a result LeBron was 0-of-3 shooting for the first quarter (he had two points from a couple of free throws). Cleveland as a team shot 25 percent for the quarter and was down 19 just 12 minutes in. LeBron was more of himself after that and finished with 24 points, but the opportunity was lost. So was the game, the Cavaliers never got all the way back in it.
LeBron has to carry more of a load with this team than any team he has been on in years, probably since he left Cleveland for Miami. Fair or not, that’s the reality. He can’t be passive and set guys up early, he has to shoulder the burden from the start and put up big numbers, then hope as the defense overloads to stop him someone else can step up with a few buckets. Expect to see LeBron attacking from the opening tip on Tuesday.
2) Get Kevin Love the ball. Love had nine points on eight shots in Game 1, and took only two shots inside the arc in his entire 34 minutes of play — and he had 6’8″ Thaddeus Young on him much of the night, a guy Love can take down to the block and score over and around. It simply was not enough touches and looks for the second best scorer on Cleveland.
Tyron Lue needs to call some sets for Love early and get him the rock down on the block and let him go to work — if the defense collapses or the doubles come, Love is a very capable passer out of the post. But let the man work. The Cavaliers were struggling to get buckets in Game 1 and were leaning more on new guys like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Jeff Green to take the shots. Basketball can be a simple game — get your best shooters/scorers the ball more and let them work. That means more LeBron and Love, less from the other role players.
3) Lineup/rotation changes: More J.R. Smith and Cedi Osman (maybe even Tristan Thompson), less of the new guys. Cleveland started Larry Nance Jr. and he looked a little lost in the moment. Jordan Clarkson played 20 minutes, however, all but two of those came when LeBron was on the court, which is not ideal (Clarkson needs the ball in his hands to create to be effective, but when LeBron is on the court the ball should be in his hands). The Cavaliers second best player in Game 1 was J.R. Smith off the bench — the veteran looked comfortable in the moment.
It’s time for Lue to consider lineup changes, or at the very least significant rotation changes. Start Smith and bring Rodney Hood off the bench. Get more run for rookie Cedi Osman, who is a good defender plus plays well off the ball and can knock down threes (36.8 percent from beyond the arc this season). And I like seeing the lineups with Love at the five, but maybe more Tristan Thompson as a physical, board-crashing change of pace (although it will be tough to play him if the Pacers have the stretchy Myles Turner at the five). Despite the roster shakeups, there are Cavaliers who have been in these moments before, lean on them.
Five big takeaways from first weekend of NBA playoffs
To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.
Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.
• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).
Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.
We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.
It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.
If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.
Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)
Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.
• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?
However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.
LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).
It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.
• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.
The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.
Simmons lets the Sixers do that.
• Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.
Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.
Put the brakes on all that.
Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.
Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?
Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.
If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.
• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.
However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.
In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.
How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.
Report: Cavaliers to sign Kendrick Perkins for last game, playoffs
It’s good to have friends in high places… or just ones named LeBron.
Kendrick Perkins is back. The once useful big man has not played in a regular season game for just shy of two years (April 13, 2016) but the Cavaliers are once again bringing him back for the playoffs, reports Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin of ESPN. Last-minute signings are a Cavaliers’ thing.
Cleveland will sign Perkins on Wednesday, the final day of the regular season, just as it did in 2016 when guard Dahntay Jones was added, and in 2017 when both Jones and center Edy Tavares were added for the Cavs’ playoff run.
This is more about veteran leadership in the locker room for a now younger Cavaliers team — Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson have never been to the playoffs, Rodney Hood just once — than it is about on-court production. There were undoubtedly other guys out there who could give them more on the court, but the Cavs know and trust what Perkins brings.
Plus, if the Cavaliers need to scowl at someone during the playoffs, they just picked up one of the best.
Tyronn Lue: Jeff Green will start for Cavaliers through playoffs, pushing Kevin Love to center
Love at center will help maximize Cleveland’s offense, but he’s a liability as a rim-protector. The Cavs’ defense is already bad enough, and this will present another challenge.
As Lue said, Green is versatile. But that doesn’t make Green good. For someone comfortable beyond the arc, he’s a poor 3-point shooter. He can passably guard multiple positions, but none of them well. At least that defensive versatility could allow LeBron to play more of a free-safety role on defense – where he excels and creates highly valuable transition opportunities.
This means Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson will come off the bench, and there might not be room for both bigs in the playoff rotation. The way Thompson has played this season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s the odd man out.
We should avoid overreacting to a starting lineup. Sometimes, reserves play more. But starters – who spread their minutes over 48 game minutes rather than scrunching them into a shorter window – are better-equipped for big roles. It matters that this is how Lue is setting up the Cavs for a high-stakes playoff run.
Cavaliers get Nance Jr., Thompson, Hood back from injuries
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers are closer to being at full strength.
Forwards Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Rodney Hood all returned from injuries on Friday night as Cleveland, which has been riddled with injuries all season, hosted the Phoenix Suns. Acting coach Larry Drew said none of the players will start and all will be on minutes’ restrictions.
Drew, who is filling in while coach Tyronn Lue is on leave to address his own health, plans to keep his starting lineup intact and ease the returning players into the rotation.
“I really didn’t want to disrupt the starting five that we have out there right now and those guys will be playing limited minutes, so I wanted to get them slowly back and acclimated to what we’re doing,” Drew said. “There’s a chance that there could be some early substitutions to get the guys in there. I’m not ruling that out, but right now I just kind of want to stay with the flow, stay with what we’ve done the last couple of ballgames and then we’ll probably after tonight we’ll see as far as where we stand as far as starters are concerned.”
Thompson missed nine games with a sprained right ankle, Nance Jr. was out four with a hamstring issue and Hood was out the past three games with a bad back.
Drew said he did not know if Lue will accompany the team on its trip.
But while the Cavs are healthier than they’ve been in weeks, the team is still missing Kyle Korver, who is with his family in Iowa following the death of his brother, and rookie Cedi Osman, who is sidelined with a left hip flexor strain.